We often spend our family breaks driving for hours through France, either to get to the Alps or heading south for the sun. So the prospect of an autumn family break at Center Parcs Sherwood Forest just an hour up the road was incredibly appealing.
And this was a break with another difference. We were holidaying for the first time with my in-laws - not just 'taking the family' but 'taking the extended family'. I felt a little apprehensive...
My worries melted away the moment I walked into our bright and airy two-storey Executive lodge, open plan downstairs, with one double bedroom, then a further three bedrooms upstairs. Having all this space meant we could spend quality time together as a family but also enjoy privacy when wanted.
It was time to discover one of the highlights of the weekend: our bicycles.
It had been four decades since Grandma and Grandpa had ridden a bike and I wondered if the theory that you never forget how to really holds water. Luckily, in my in-laws' case it turned out to be true, and soon we were cruising happily around the village, slowing down only at pedestrian crossings and for free-roaming ducks (all Center Parcs are car-free).
The excitement and holiday spirit around the village was contagious. Everybody we spoke to (and with my chatty mother-in-law around this meant a LOT of people) was making the most of the mindblowing range of facilities, and as we hurtled past the lake in search of the village square we heard squeals of delight from kids canoeing, sailing and even crazy golfing.
Our own kids started screaming themselves when they realized that Strada (part of the child-friendly Italian restaurant chain) overlooked the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, where guests were still sliding, floating and fluming at 8pm. As we feasted on hearty Italian fare, the little ones were riveted by the swimmers and by their activity packs, giving us adults the chance to plan our action-packed weekend. I also made a mental note (and privately rejoiced) at the sight of a Starbucks as we cycled back to our lodge.
After an indulgent family breakfast the next morning, it was straight back to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Worried about swimming, Grandma hadn't brought her swimming costume but soon wished she had as she felt the tropical heat and saw the various pools. We found a cool spot to base ourselves and suddenly Grandpa, much to his granddaughter's delight, was off on the white-water rapids. Three hours later, the children had to be literally dragged out of the water, they were so excited by all the different slides and pools, plus the pirate ship with a sandpit.
Post swim it was off to the covered driving range for a spot of golf, followed by family fun at the bowling alley, where everybody's competitive spirit came out, not least that of my four-year-old son. Too excited to be tired, the kids had a quick bop on the dance floor at the children's disco, then we headed back to our lodge. With exhausted kids in bed, our tummies full, the fire lit, glasses of wine in our hands and surrounded by family, it really was a family moment to treasure.
The following day it was back to the Subtropical Swimming Paradise for the kids and menfolk, while the ladies of the party padded gently off to the Aqua Sana Spa for treatments and relaxation. In this two-floor spa - so huge it has its own bistro and 15 spa experience rooms - I sampled a blissful two-hour Elemis Absolute Spa Ritual treatment that left me feeling (and I like to think looking) at least 10 years younger.
We had a little rain during our stay, but we genuinely didn't notice or care, there was so much to do, indoors and out. In addition to all the treats mentioned above, there are all sorts of activities, both bookable (from jewellery-making to night-time tree-trekking) and spur of the moment (wonderful nature trails). Such a wealth of choice means families could very easily come back time and time again.
For us, it was wonderful to spend time as a family, with the bonus that holidaying with in-laws means everyone can get some relaxation time and could come away feeling refreshed. As a result of the break, my mother-in-law has even taken up cycling as a hobby, which seems to have given her a fresh outlook on life. And Grandpa can't wait to get back on the water slide!
The kids were also unanimous in their approval: as we drove off back through the trees, we heard from the back: 'Mummy, can we come back again soon?', and from the other side, 'Daddy, can we live here?'
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